Russia’s Middle East Footprint Expands With New Iran-Iraq Plan

Three events occurred in the last week or so involving either Iran or Iraq separately, or both together, that put Russia back front and centre in the Middle East, to the detriment of the U.S. In order of timing, these events were: a series of meetings between Russia’s veteran foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Iran’s senior political and military figures, including President, Ebrahim Raisi; the withdrawal from the Iraqi parliament of the country’s long-time de facto leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, and his 73-member political bloc, the largest group in the legislative body; and, the agreement of a new cooperative roadmap between Iran and Iraq. 

On the first point, relating to Russia, prior to the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or colloquially ‘the nuclear deal’) in May 2018, the Kremlin had used the loosening up of restrictions in the run up to that agreement being made in 2015 to dramatically increase its presence in Iran, as analysed in depth in my new book on the global oil markets. In the energy sector alone, before 2018 initial field exploration and development agreements were signed by GazpromNeft for the Changouleh and Cheshmeh-Khosh oilfields, Zarubezhneft for the Aban and Paydar Gharb fields, and Tatneft for the Dehloran field. These were on top of the previous memoranda of understanding (MoU) signed by Lukoil and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) for studies of the Ab Teymour and Mansouri oil fields. 

Even more significant was the concomitant signing of a 22-point memorandum of understanding (MoU) by Iran’s deputy petroleum minister, Amir-Hossein Zamaninia, and Russia’s deputy energy minister, Kirill Molodtsov, which included not just the studies and plans for exploration and extraction of oil but also for the transfer of gas, petrochemical swap operations, research on the supply and marketing of petrochemical products, the manufacture of oil equipment together with local Iranian engineering firms, and technology transfer in the refinery sector. Discussions by early 2018 were also underway for adjunct developments to this 22-point MoU that included the dual use of Iranian seaports and airports by Russia for both civilian and military purposes. These adjunct plans, however, were suspended due to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May of that year, and were later rolled into the same concept of dual use contained in the landmark 25-year agreement between Iran and China, first reported anywhere by this author on 3 September 2019.

At the most recent meeting in the last week or so, understands from sources close to Iran’s Petroleum Ministry that: “Lavrov and Raisi discussed expanding cooperation across all fields, in line with the original [22-point] MoU.” He added: “This also included logistical cooperation for the movement of goods, including where necessary oil and gas and related products, both from Iran to Russia and Russia to Iran, and also elements of the special [dual use civilian and military] cooperation that had been agreed four years ago.” Iran’s foreign ministry itself noted that Lavrov’s visit was aimed at: “Expanding cooperation with the Eurasian region and the Caucasus.” At the 19 January meeting between Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Iranian counterpart, Raisi, added the Iran source, there was “extensive discussion” on Russia finally providing Iran with the S-400 missile defence system and Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets that it has been promising for several years. Russia has perennially linked these military hardware requests from Iran to other of its own security concerns across the Middle East, with Syria, in particular, an area in which Iran and Russia had long sought to come to a decisive working arrangement.

On the second point, relating to Iraq’s al-Sadr, the radical cleric had long seen the notion of bringing together all of Iraq, including the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north, and keeping foreign influence – including Iran’s – at a minimum as his principal political philosophy. In the lead-up to his withdrawal from Iraq’s parliament, and the subsequent withdrawal of the 73 members of his faction from it, al-Sadr had been looking to create the country’s first true majority government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This was to have been done through an alliance struck with the bloc of Iraq’s Speaker of Parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). “The key problem for al-Sadr was that if this were successful, it would have excluded the [Iran-controlled] Coordination Framework from any legitimate power, and Russia too, given al-Sadr’s extreme dislike of any foreign…

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